You suspected, right? We knew there was a deep companionship between Achilles and Patroclus, but just how deep we could only speculate. From, everything I’ve read about the relationship between the two, it was a subject that was danced around. Frankly, the exact nature of their companionship just didn’t seem to matter all that much anyway. Patroclus was not exactly a minor character, but this was always about Achilles and what he represented.
But here, in Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, Patroclus and Achilles are outed. More precisely, Miller treats the frank love between the pair in a forthright manner, from genesis to revelation. To do this, and it’s my take in part, that the author does this so as not to offend the Achilles worshippers out there, she nudges Achilles intro the background somewhat and puts Patroclus on center stage. In fact, the song here is sung by Patroclus as the first-person narrator. I’ve read many Iliad and Achilles related tales over the years (and quite a few recently) but don’t recall ever having Patroclus fleshed out so well.
Patroclus first sees Achilles when he is only five (the same age as Achilles) and he is fascinated and envious. Envious at the beauty of Achilles, of his way of being in the world, of his extraordinary skills, of his natural ‘princeliness’. When Patroclus compares himself (inevitable) to Achilles, he finds he is lacking, inadequate. His father has reinforced this lack of self-esteem. Self assured and confident, Achilles is everything that Patroclus is not. If opposites attract, then this is exhibit A. This memory stays with him until he sees him again. We get a lot more of the backstory here than is found in the Iliad (much of which is found elsewhere) – the complete saga so to speak – from the Judgement of Paris through the “Trojan Horse” tale. The ‘complete’ story of Patroclus, through his own voice, is told as well. We see P as a young boy and the bullying he endured, and the accidental killing of a contemporary. The other boy had taken something from P simply because he was able to – he was more powerful. And Power is a central and recurring theme in the saga. From from the taking of Helen from Menelaus, (though there’s some dispute about that) to the taking of Briseis from Achilles, taking what’s not yours to rightly take certainly has its consequences! The consequence for P s his banishment from his father’s kingdom. Arrangements are made for him go be raised along with several other boy in the household of Achilles’ father Peleus, who seems to run a sort of Father Flanagan Boy’s Town for lost, troubled or unwanted children. Soon though, he is selected out by Achilles and becomes his constant companion.
As they grow close, P comes to confess his crime to Achilles. The scene is a foretelling of the events to come:
“What would you have done?” I asked.
Achilles tapped a finger against the branch he sat on. “I don’t know. I can’t imagine it. The way the boy spoke to you.” He shrugged. “No one has ever tried to take something from me.”
“Never?” I could not believe it. A life without such things seemed impossible.
“Never.” He was silent a moment, thinking. “I don’t know,” he repeated, finally. “I think I would be angry.” He closed his eyes and rested his head back against a branch. The green oak leaves crowded around his hair, like a crown.
The first word of the Iliad is “Rage”. A bit more than plain vanilla anger.
We know the story, all conflated here in a compelling way. Miller gives us different slants on some of the more familiar characters: Thetis especially comes off as a hateful Goddess (she cannot abide humans) but she is drawn in a way I have not seen, and renews our interest in her and her relationship to her son. Odysseus is a bit of a conniving manipulator here and plays a central role in the epic.
The value of Miller’s novel is that it is not a bad way for a modern reader, new to the entire epic saga, to get an overview and this clear perspective. One could do worse. Hopefully that would encourage readers to ‘go to the source’. But of course, the source is mostly lost, so even the various historic texts of the epic saga are pieced together interpretations. So those who may say that Miller reads too much into the text are on shaky ground. Her background is steeped in the languages and the classics.
For new readers, the one criticism could be that they are being led astray and that the role of Achilles is not so large as they had been led to believe. Further reading would disabuse them of that notion. Miller’s novel is fresh and entirely readable, flowing like a modern page turner. A valuable and remarkable addition to the body of work increasing our appreciation of the epic.